So You Want My Job: Foreign Service Officer/Diplomat

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 25, 2013 · 75 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

Kobb Zoo

Ardastra Gardens in Nassau, The Bahamas.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Compared to other government agencies like, say, the FBI or CIA, the Foreign Service doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. But becoming a Foreign Service Officer, also known as a diplomat, is a job you really should consider if you’re a man who enjoys travel and learning about other cultures, is looking for adventure, and, as the State Department puts it, “you’re passionate about public service” and have a desire to “promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.” Your assignments can take you to any of the 265 American embassies around the world, where you may be attending a swanky treaty event in Europe or fighting human trafficking in Africa. To learn more about this globe-trotting job, today we turn to Shawn Kobb, a diplomat currently working in Kabul, Afghanistan. If you’re interested in becoming a diplomat yourself, be sure to check out his website, Foreign Service Test, where he offers tips on passing the rigorous exam that’s part of the process of being picked for the job.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I was born in 1977 and grew up in a small town in northern Indiana. I went to Manchester University and studied Communications and Theater. In 2006 I joined the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer, more commonly referred to as a diplomat. The Foreign Service has a wide variety of duties, but in short we are the face of the U.S. government around the world. We staff embassies and consulates in nearly every country of the world and provide assistance to American citizens overseas. I have lived and worked in Ukraine, the Bahamas, Washington, D.C., and right now I’m spending a year in Kabul, Afghanistan.

2. Why did you want to become a diplomat? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I’m not really sure where I first heard about the Foreign Service. I know after 9/11 I started looking more at government jobs. I also had a passion for travel that was first sparked by a trip I took in college to Europe. Also, despite being a small school, Manchester University has always pulled in a lot of international students and I loved talking to them, learning about their culture. Finally, in 2004 I took the first part of the Foreign Service test. I found out I passed that portion while checking my email at an internet cafe in Bangkok as my wife and I were backpacking around the world.

3. What’s the best way to prepare yourself to join the Foreign Service? What should you major in and what kinds of experiences and skills should you seek?

To be honest, the sort of degree you go after doesn’t make much difference. There is no educational requirement for the Foreign Service. You have to be able to pass the multi-part Foreign Service exam, though, and that requires a wealth of knowledge on many different subjects, particularly history, government, economics, geography, English, and popular culture. The best way to prepare is to be a well-rounded student and take classes in a variety of subjects.

4. What is the process for applying to the Foreign Service?

There are several portions to the test and each must be passed before you can move along to the next step. First there is the written test which is much like any standardized test and includes an essay portion. If you pass that you will submit a resume and a set of personal narratives explaining your background and experiences. If you pass that portion you are invited to the dreaded oral assessment. This is a mix of interviews, case management exercises, and a group exercise along with other applicants where you play the role of embassy officers and have to solve a problem together while observed. Your passing score from the oral assessment determines your place on the register (the list the State Department pulls from)…that is assuming you also passed the medical and security checks.

5. What is the Foreign Service Officer test like? How should you prepare for it?

The written test is best described as a mix of the SATs and the television game show Jeopardy. You can’t just be a big book nerd and hope to pass because while one question may be about the export goods of Brazil, the next might be about the 1991 World Series or the comic strip Dilbert.

The oral assessment is easier to prepare for, but much more challenging. Fortunately, there are websites, forums, and even in-person practice sessions conducted by the State Department to help.

6. How competitive is it to be selected as a Foreign Service Officer? What characteristics and background are they looking for in making their selections? Do you need to know a foreign language?

Some have claimed the Foreign Service test is one of the toughest exams around. I haven’t taken that many so I can’t really say, but it is challenging. I don’t know the exact pass rates, but I would guess around 30-40% pass the written and maybe 20-30% pass the oral assessment. I think what the State Department is really looking for is the right combination of knowledge and interpersonal skills. The Foreign Service is strange in that we both work and live with our colleagues overseas. If you are in a country like Yemen or Mozambique, it may be difficult to make friends in the local community so your co-workers are all you have.

Foreign language skills are a bonus and can help boost your scores if you pass the exams, but they don’t allow you to sneak in without taking the test. The State Department runs its own mini-university that teaches more than 80 foreign languages. I have been trained in Russian and will study German for my next assignment.

Me and my wife Jennifer at the recent Marine Ball in Kabul.

Me and my wife Jennifer at the recent Marine Ball in Kabul.

7. If you are selected, do you get any choice in where you are assigned to serve? Do you get a choice in what kind of job you’ll be doing?

For your first two tours you are considered an entry level officer and have your assignment directed. Still, you have a lot of say in where you go and it is rare that people are sent somewhere they are completely opposed to. After that you are tenured and commissioned by the President and bid on assignments. It is somewhat like applying for a new job every two or three years. You study the list of vacancies and then start lobbying to get the embassy to select you. The list of jobs includes not only the location, but also the type of position it is.

8. Speaking of which, what kinds of jobs are available?

I am a Foreign Service Generalist which means that they type of assignments I receive can vary from tour to tour. At the same time, we also have a focus. Mine is in management. I tend to do jobs that involve running the embassy from HR to logistics to finance. An embassy overseas is essentially a small to medium-sized business. In my current assignment in Afghanistan, I supervise more than 40 employees and have responsibility for more than $100 million in assets. In addition to management, we have people who work in political, economic, consular, and public diplomacy career tracks. There are also Foreign Service Specialists who have a particular skill set and they stick with them. They are generally in IT, medical, security, engineering, and other fields. The hiring mechanism for them is slightly different.

9. What are some of the unique challenges of being a diplomat?

One of the biggest challenges is also one of the greatest perks and that is living overseas. We move to a new country every few years so while that is exciting, it is also draining. I spend a lot of my life with my possessions in boxes, learning the quirks of a new country, and meeting all new co-workers. It is tough to maintain friendships, especially with those outside of the Foreign Service. We are also very poorly understood by the American public and do not receive much recognition for our efforts.

For every “cush” spot around the world, we probably have five that can be quite difficult to live in. All of our posts have a hardship rating assigned to them ranging from 0% up to 35%. This percentage also comes with a boost in pay. We have the same thing for danger. For instance, London would be 0% hardship and danger because the standard of living is high and it isn’t particularly dangerous (apart from typical big city danger). I’m currently in Kabul and we are 35% hardship, 35% danger — the top of the chart. This is because living here is hard due to isolation, terrible air quality, little infrastructure, lack of medical support, and other day-to-day living factors. We’re at the top for danger because, well, there are a lot of people who would like to kill me if they caught me walking down the street. I have two sets of body armor and I had to take courses in hostage awareness, surveillance detection, weapons familiarization, combat first aid, and counter-assault driving just to come here. When I was assigned to Kyiv, Ukraine we had additional hardship pay because of the danger of fallout radiation from Chernobyl. In the Bahamas…no hardship pay there.

10. What are some of the unique benefits of being a diplomat?

As I said, if you love to travel then the job is great. You can also be paid to learn a foreign language. Before heading off to my next assignment in Vienna, I will be in Washington, D.C. for seven months studying German full-time and being paid for it. We also receive free housing overseas and that is a great financial perk. Job security is also great and I’ve had a chance to experience a lot of fabulous events that most Americans can only dream of and have rubbed elbows with presidents, celebrities, and musicians.

11. What is the work/family/life balance like for you? Do diplomats’ families get to come live where they are assigned?

This is always a tricky question. In general, I think work/family balance is very good. Family members can travel along with you to most of our assignments around the world. A few of the more dangerous locations have restrictions and are considered unaccompanied tours. The State Department also pays for schooling of children, but some international schools are better than others and this must be taken into consideration when bidding for your assignments. It can be very difficult for your spouse to have a solid career due to the constant amount of moving.

12. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

The biggest, most frustrating misconception is the fact that most Americans don’t even know we exist. Don’t ask how many times people have thought I’m in the French Foreign Legion. Also, the Foreign Service isn’t an intelligence agency and many people seem to think we’re spies for some reason. Those that do know we exist think we spend our time going to cocktail receptions and signing treaties. There is certainly a little bit of that, but most Foreign Service Officers are not assigned to Paris or Geneva. We’re in some of the roughest places of the world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Papua New Guinea, East Timor. Although we are not engaged in combat, we often serve alongside our military colleagues and we almost always stay behind after they leave. The military has pulled out of Iraq, but there are still many Foreign Service Officers there working on development, women’s rights, business, infrastructure projects, etc. A colleague of mine here in Afghanistan was killed very recently by a suicide bomber as she attempted to deliver books to school children. The dangers we face are very real and I think all any of us want is a little recognition of that, particularly by some members of Congress who regularly disparage our work.

13. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?

The U.S. Foreign Service is really more than just a job, it is a lifestyle. You can see the world and will have some of the best stories to share. I had the opportunity to listen to Magic Johnson tell stories about his rivalry with Larry Bird. I scoured the markets of Kyiv, Ukraine once for caffeine-free Diet Pepsi for a Secretary of State. I listened to a Haitian man seeking a U.S. visa explain to me that his fingerprints had fallen off during the earthquake and that must be why my computer said he had a criminal record.

I could go on and on with crazy and touching stories. If you are at all interested, I recommend taking the test. Even if it is on a whim. The test is free and if nothing else can give you great bragging rights if you pass.

{ 75 comments… read them below or add one }

1 pbryantr April 25, 2013 at 2:25 pm

From one public servant to another, I thank you for your service in supporting or embassies and citizens as well as citizens of foreign nations, especially in dangerous conditions.

2 james April 25, 2013 at 2:30 pm

that was an awesome read!!! appreciate his hard work and thank you aom for bringing that to light

3 John W. April 25, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Manchester University is fantastic! Incredible support from the faculty, staff, administration and community. You are definitely a name at MU, not just a number.

Great interview! Congratulations Shawn!

4 David Kobb April 25, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Great article, AOM. Stay safe, cuz.

5 Manny April 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm

One of the most interesting of all the “so you want my job” posts!

Seems like it would be fascinating work for the right person.

Thanks for your service and for your time explaining what you do.

6 Ed Loo April 25, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Shawn, great interview. I’m linking to it from our Facebook page. Thanks.

7 Michael April 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm

The FSOA is damned hard. I’ve passed once, but never got the call. I took it again last month and, while I think I improved my performance, failed. It’s really a mystery how to pass the oral assessment, and there are entire communities dedicated to analyzing how to pass. There’s no sure way to prepare however, except to try again.

8 Jack D April 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm

I’m a new-hire FS specialist currently at “Hogwarts” learning Spanish. I plan to become an FSO after a few tours. This was a great read!

9 Noah April 25, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I had the opportunity to talk with a diplomat at the State Department recently, it sounds really interesting I may go into it.. thanks Shawn, for this article, but more importantly what you do! The person I talked with also was in Kabul because there husband was stationed there actually, very interesting! :)

10 Matt April 25, 2013 at 5:10 pm

As a candidate sitting on the register during a dearth of FSO hiring, this post has reminded me why I started this process, why I still really want this, and why, every morning, I have a little bit of hope for an email from my registrar. Thanks for that.

11 Nicholas Merrill April 25, 2013 at 5:44 pm

It is my DREAM to serve as a Foreign Service Officer. I feel like it’s what I’m meant to do. Can’t wait until I’m in the service! :D Thank you so much for posting this!!!!

12 salah eddine sy April 25, 2013 at 6:33 pm

My dream is to work for the state department.I hold already a bachelor degree in business law from a foreign institution.I had worked for non governmental organiszations and had also more thanten years experience.I’a a master in criminal justice.I speak and write five llanguages.

13 Barbie April 25, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Thank you Shawn for all that you do. People don’t realize the dedication and dangers associated with your job. Unfortunately, you are under appreciated by the general public, but you will never be so by your family, friends, and other Foreign Service Officers. Stay safe.

14 Shawn April 25, 2013 at 9:46 pm

I appreciate all the kind and interesting comments. This being the internet, I was prepared for some anonymous bashing. A nice crowd here at Art of Manliness.

It is a dream job at times and a real drag at others. I can’t say Kabul is the greatest place to be, but I do try to remind myself of all the nice points of the job and keep my head down and slog through.

15 Peter Kennett April 26, 2013 at 10:09 am

Great article, but I would like to add a bit of detail about the Foreign Service Specialists (FSS), who have all the same lifestyle and benefits, but serve a different role at the Embassies and Consulates. Also, FSS do NOT take the Foreign Service Exam, or the Oral Exam. Details at State dot Gov.

16 Shawn April 26, 2013 at 10:58 am

Peter makes a great point. I touched briefly on the role of specialists over at my blog, but that is an entire other option open to people interested in working overseas. Their hiring method is a bit different, but they’re still members of the Foreign Service and we all work side-by-side overseas.

17 Lance April 26, 2013 at 11:10 am

Awesome insights. You know who you should do next is a Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Special Agent. Although, they probably wouldn’t/couldn’t due to security concerns.

18 Fabian April 26, 2013 at 11:18 am

Just a note to non-american readers. Most countries have foreign service officers much like this. Google the webpage of your ministry of foreign affairs or department of state or however they call it in your country and ask how can you serve. Most countries have a constellation of embassies that you can work at.

19 Mark Lodes April 26, 2013 at 11:41 am

So having earned my bragging rights, (passed the test the first time I took it) have you got any advice on what it takes to get through to, and through, the Oral Interview? BTW I’m one citizen who certainly appreciates the work you do in Kabul, my brother worked there, & he left behind some good friends! The world needs the work you do! Keep it up!

20 Shawn April 27, 2013 at 1:40 am

A lot of great comments!

Peter and Lance are both exactly right about the importance of Foreign Service Specialists. I didn’t mention them in the interview, but they’re a crucial part of the mission and another great job opportunity. Their hiring mechanism is a bit different though.

Mark – I have some tips on my website you can check out. I don’t have a lot of great insight on the narrative portion you have to do after the written test as that wasn’t around when I did it. I can definitely give you some good pointers on the oral assessment though.

21 Michele April 27, 2013 at 5:31 am

Great interview, Shawn. You’re so right, it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Keep safe, and if you need another break, Jordan is here :)

22 Native Son April 27, 2013 at 11:26 am

You assert not too many Americans know the Foreign Service exists. It’s probably because most Americans don’t know the State Department T.O. beyond ambassador or counsular officer. It’s likely that most folks wouldn’t recognise the administrative management of an embassy or consulate as being diplomatics. You also run into the “common acronym” problem. A “FSO” is a completely different position from what you do, depending on where one works.

23 Shawn April 27, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Native Son – That’s all true. It is kind of unfortunate the U.S. uses the term “State” Department instead of Foreign Affairs like most other country in the world. That would probably help.

FSO is our generic title, but you’re right, there are many different roles an FSO can take and it will change from post to post. It is like saying you’re a “business man.” That gives you an idea of what someone does, but they could be doing sales, management, marketing, many different things.

24 Greg April 28, 2013 at 6:21 am

Great article. I am an Air Force officer, but I had an opportunity to do a fellowship with the State Department, including a 2-month stint at the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. I was utterly impressed with the FSOs who were working on a wide variety of subjects important to our government. They truly seemed to relish their posting despite long distances from family, austere living conditions, and sometimes frustrating relationships with the host country. Much like the military, one does not get rich from a career in the government, but there is an intangible reward that comes with public service. Thanks to the FSOs as well as the civil servants and local nationals working alongside them, who protect and serve our nation in many parts of the world where our military has no presence.

25 Omar April 28, 2013 at 6:41 pm

I think he has it reversed, now you submit your resume and if you are selected from that you are allowed to take the exam.

26 Bryan April 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I do something along these lines as well. As an Air Force Officer, I work in the Security Assistance/Foreign military sales. It involved working with countries to procure old US inventory/services in order to secure our position in a specific countries. I work a few countries in the SE Asia region, going TDY routinely in the area. Working with foreign Air Forces does have its challenges at times, but it is extremely rewarding seeing large programs come to completion. Hopefully working towards being a RAS.
Thanks for all the work you do sir.

27 Reed M April 28, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Thank you for the article Shawn, very interesting. As an International Development Studies undergrad. student currently, this is a field that certainly interests me. What steps should college students take to learn more about / get a foot in the door in this field? Would you be willing to correspond via email to share more about your experiences?

28 Shawn April 29, 2013 at 11:09 am

Hi Reed. Thanks for your interest. I started my new website primarily to help folks like yourself prepare for the test or at least find out if it is something for you. I have most of my info over there though the site is still new so articles are still coming. The best way to reach me is probably through that, but you can shoot me an email if you want as well.

If you’re studying international development, you may also want to explore career opportunities with USAID. I don’t cover them much on my site, but they’re also an important part of the Foreign Service community.

29 MJ May 4, 2013 at 6:44 am

I just registered to take the test! I didn’t realize I could take it here, in Seoul. Thanks for sharing about this interesting career!

30 Shawn May 5, 2013 at 10:00 am

Good luck, MJ!

I think it is just in the last few years (as the test became computerized) that they’ve started offering it more often and in more locations around the world.

Best of luck. Let me know if you have any questions.

31 Frank May 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm

This is very cool for me. I’m in graduate school, and want to get into this field! Glad AoM did a story on it!

32 Zoran May 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Hello Shawn,
Thank you for a thorough account of a FSO career and all its advantages and disadvantages. I’ve been contemplating this career for some time, but I was at my wits end wheter to join the service because of my dual citizenship. Although not a ground for ineligibility, a dual citizenship is not really welcomed. Be that as it may, I decided to give a shot to a fsot because it is offered this year in Serbia. Have you ever met our heard of any diplomats with a dual citizenship?
I’ve seen some preparation material posted on the Department of State website, and it looks challenging in some facets. Do you have any suggestions what other prep material I may use. Also, a detailed explanation of the fsot itself would be quite welcomed (how long it takes, # of sectionso or questions, the topic of your essay). I will appreciate any input you may provide.

33 Shawn May 16, 2013 at 12:13 am

Hi Zoran,

Sorry for the delayed response. I just saw your comment.

There are some dual citizen diplomats I know of. In general, I don’t think it is a big problem, but it may restrict where you can be assigned. Diplomatic Security ultimately makes these calls, but I’m about 98% sure if you were a dual citizen you would never be assigned to the country of your other citizenship. One of the major reasons is it would really screw up your diplomatic immunity. You cannot be a citizen of that country and claim diplomatic immunity.

As far as training aids, I have a bunch of ideas and suggestions over at my site. Feel free to check it out and let me know if you have any more questions.

34 Zoran May 19, 2013 at 8:20 am

Hi Shawn,
thank you for your reply. I’ve already scheduled my fsot for June, and already looked up some of the prep material provided by the State Department. I hope they have the same questions on the test as they do in this book.
I’ve checked your blog, and I must say it’s a great asset to anyone pursuing a career in diplomacy. I would highly recommend it to everyone. Thank you for your effort. I can’t even remotely fathom how long it takes you to wright all this. Good job.

35 Tee May 29, 2013 at 10:33 pm

I actually met with a retired foreign officer in undergrad. I thought about being one before. Now Im in grad school studying architecture, and Im rethinking taking the test. Ill graduate in a year, so hopefully thats enough time to prepare for the test. Ive always desired to live in another country learn languages and cultures and foster peace.

36 Tatiana June 6, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Hi Shawn,
Thank you for such a great article. I recently applied for a job as a FSS, and your article makes me even more excited about this career. My concern is: there is a website claiming that if you apply now, you will be ready for 2015. Is this true? How long does it usually take to get selected and start training?

I appreciate your input!

37 Shawn June 10, 2013 at 3:22 am

Hi Tatiana,

Which specialist position did you apply for?

I’m not as certain about the specialist time line, but I would say 2015 is pretty far out but possible. For those who just took the FSOT this month, I think it is feasible they could join by early 2014.

Every case is unique, but the main factors affecting your time line are your score in the oral assessment (those with high scores get called first), your security clearance, and your medical clearance. Depending on your background, security can take a while.

Best of luck!

38 Rosina June 17, 2013 at 10:19 pm

I am very interest in the position of Foreign Service Officer before I become to old to apply. I speak several languages. I travelled extensively. Every since I worked for the Embassy of Japan in Zambia, I have always wanted to continue to work as a diplomat. Are you available to guide me in the right direction. My biggest problem is knowledge about USA, it is limited.

39 Yasmin June 19, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Hi Shawn,

Thanks for the interview, it was great. I recently took the June exam. I am crossing my finger to have pass. I am currently a government employee as well. I have a few questions for you.. For those that receive a pay cut will the Dept of State try and match the salary? Also, you mentioned that you move every 2 to 4 years what are the possibilities of you staying for longer? Has that ever happened to you?

And lastly, you mentioned you had a website with tips to the oral assessment. What’s the address to your site?

Again, thanks for all your hard work!

40 Ladario Brown June 19, 2013 at 6:32 pm

A very well written and informative article. I particularly enjoy the pictures of Ardastra Gardens at the top, as I am from the Bahamas. Great series, keep it up.

41 Zoran July 3, 2013 at 4:15 am

Just received the score from my first FSOT. 123.90 It could’ve been better.

42 Andrew July 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm

I just got back the test results from June, and I passed the first stage, so I’m pretty pumped! Now I have a couple weeks to complete the QEP. Shawn, your site was very helpful, thanks for putting it on. Brett & Kate, thanks to you also for this interview, it prodded me towards signing up for the FSOT, and I’m glad I did.

43 Shawn July 15, 2013 at 6:21 am

Yasmin – Sorry for the delayed response. I hope you still see this. Yes, State does match pay to a certain degree, but you still cannot start higher than the maximum range. You’ll never stay some place longer than 4 years and more realistically it is 3 years. You should be able to click on my name and link to my site.

Zoran – Did you pass? I don’t know what the passing score is this time.

Andrew – Kick ass! Good look on the upcoming steps. The personal narratives can be a pain, I’ve heard, but the oral assessment is sort of fun.

44 Ben July 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Nice write up.

I took the FSOT this past February on a lark and passed it.

While it may be considered tough, it’s really not that hard if you’re well rounded and well read.

45 Paola July 18, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Hi Shawn,

Thank you for this great article! I always dreamed about becoming a diplomat, however I was not born in the US. Even though I am an american citizen and have lived in the US for the last 7 years I still have an accent. My question to you is if you have ever met anybody in your career who speaks with an accent.
Thanks for your answer!

46 Luke July 19, 2013 at 6:13 pm

a great read!
Thank you for your focused and candid experience you have shared. It’s really getting me excited as I prepare for my test. Stay safe, and thank you for your service.

47 MAC July 21, 2013 at 8:23 am

I am an EFM of a Generalist and came across this interview doing some research for something else.
Good article on the lifestyle! Like the specialists, DS agents, et al the spouses/partners of FSOs didn’t get a lot of mention here either. Regardless, a good article that I thought summed up our lives pretty well!

48 Andrew July 22, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Well, the QEP is away. I guess I’ll see if the grader liked my responses some time in the next few weeks.

49 Shawn July 25, 2013 at 9:58 am

Hi Paola,

There are plenty of foreign born Foreign Service Officers. I wouldn’t worry about your accent. If anything, I’d consider it an asset because it probably means you come with some foreign language skills.


50 Zoran August 7, 2013 at 8:46 am

Shawn, unfortunately I didn’t pass the test; the passing score was 154. I expected to score higher, but now I know what to expect next time. I can retake the exam next year.

Paola – don’t worry! I met a regional public affairs officers with extremely thick accent.

51 Domonique Banks August 23, 2013 at 10:56 pm

I am so HONORED to have men and women like you, selflessly serve and represent this country. Your dedication and personal sacrifices are immeasurable. I stand in awe and shamed that I overlooked and took for granted all that strangers like you have done to keep this country safe and free. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service to me and this country. Your story and others have inspired me at 41 to take the plunge and dedicated the rest of my life to serve others. Pray that our Lord blesses my application process and my heart is fully vested in becoming a Foreign Service Officer for the United States of America.

52 Fox September 30, 2013 at 6:35 am

Very good interview. It’s interesting how applicants to the Foreign Service of countries such as the US or the UK do not need any foreign language qualification whilst in Germany for example every applicant needs to be fluent in German, English and French (can be substituted by another official UN language, but knowledge in French must be presented at some point later). Additional languages can be studied later.

53 Tony October 6, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Thank you for this excellent description of the a foreign service officer. And a huge thank you to you and your fellow officers for the good work you do every day on behalf of your fellow Americans.

54 Shawn October 10, 2013 at 8:08 pm


I just wanted to clarify that while it isn’t required American Foreign Service Officers have a foreign language prior to joining (though it helps), it is required that we all learn one within the first few years on the job.

55 BetsyR December 2, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Work life balance is a huge problem in the foreign service. I quit the foreign service to have a baby. My single, female childless bosses were not making it easy for my husband and I to do a fertility procedure. Rather than risk another failed attempt, I quit and now have a healthy, happy baby. I was tired of “abusing” sick leave because I was tired from the minor surgical procedure from the first IVF. The 2nd time around I was “abusing” sick leave because I was feeling ill a couple of weeks before the next procedure. Quitting was the best decision I ever made.

56 leila poullada December 2, 2013 at 10:09 pm

I hope you do have a chance to get to know a few of the local employees. We came back to Kabul on a Fulbright 10 years after our mid 50′s tour with the embassy. So many people said” You came back!” We saw them again on another Fulbright in 1976-7. My 3 kids are as keen on Afghanistan as I am still. Each year led to an AFghan history book. Son born in Kabul has been back many times. Thank you for being there.

57 Ben December 3, 2013 at 6:13 am

Another FSO here (nine years in). Good, honest, and balanced view. Thanks for having the courage to talk to press and doing this for us.

58 Shawn December 3, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Hi Leila,

I’m back from Kabul now, but you’re right, getting to know the locals was the best part of being there. I won’t miss much about that tour, but I was sad to leave my Afghan staff, particularly since it is very unlikely I will ever see them again. I hope I do, but it is tough for them to get out and not likely I’ll get back there any time soon.

59 susan retired fso December 8, 2013 at 3:02 am

“Me and my wife at the Marine Ball” — I guess they don’t test for knowledge of grammar as they did when I joined in 1990.

60 Christian December 10, 2013 at 6:43 pm

I’m a freshman in college and I hopeful that one day I too become a FSO. Any advice that you think could help out an 18 year old would be appreciated.

61 Mike December 26, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Hello Shawn!

This interview was extremely informative! I am a graduating senior from California and I am very interested in joining the foreign service after graduation. I was wondering if it was possible, once tenured to work for the State Department in DC or somewhere in the US permanently?


Mike, 21

62 Shawn December 27, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Hi Matt,

I’m glad you liked the interview.

You can’t permanently stay in DC (or elsewhere in the U.S.) as a Foreign Service Officer. We can generally stay there from 5-8 years, but after that you have to head overseas again. There are some exceptions and more details to this, but that is the basic gist.

You’ll often hear the phrase “I didn’t join the Foreign Service to serve in DC” thrown about. It is good to occasionally serve in DC, but if you want to work there permanently you could look at Civil Service jobs with the State Department.

Good luck!

63 Sean January 15, 2014 at 8:08 pm

I’m not at all interested in The Foreign Service but I have always had a huge interest in culture and have always thought to myself that we as a nation that needs to pay more attention and respect more towards different cultures even if the most hated people out there that don’t like us there could be one person out there wishing to have the lifestyle like an American to get away from war, poverty, greed and so on!

I know this is very a complex issue but we need to focus on it more especially in education.

I just wish more people could understand this because in my own opinion if we ignore subjects such as these history will repeat it’s self over and over again!

Let this be a lesson not to be forgotten!

64 Larry Wilson January 16, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Excellent interview, Shawn, and thanks for sharing.

I was interested in any insight you might have for someone interested in working for the FS as a Nurse Practitioner or Physician’s Assistant. Are they required to take the same entrance exams, do they have to learn a second language, and is there a lot of competition for these positions or are they frequently unfilled? Thank you for your insight.

65 Tony P January 28, 2014 at 4:11 am

Thank you so much for continuing to answer questions almost a year later! You are inspiring so many (including myself) who are interested in a career with the Foreign Service to push forward.

Would you be so kind as to answer a couple of my questions?
1. Between FSO’s and FSS’s, is one necessarily harder/easier to get in than the other? Difference in prestige, pay, upward mobility, quality of life? Say I didn’t get through the conventional FSO route, would applying to become an FSS be a viable alternative?

2. What type of core skills/competencies are essential to a successful career as an FSO? Trying to get an idea of what type of skills day to day work will require out of you although I know it varies. My writing skills are a bit shaky and being a Biology major, my ability to hold an intelligent political conversation is measly to say the least (not to say I’m not interested in learning now that Im a seasoned traveler)

3. For the FSO and FSS route, what does having a masters degree do for you in terms of candidacy, promotion, pay, etc? As a 26 y/o with just a little sales experience and a degree in Biology, would going for a masters in some sort of foreign studies be an asset? (taking costs of education into consideration of course)

4. Do you know any diplomats in Vietnam and does speaking/writing Vietnamese increase my chances of one day being stationed there? I am an American born Vietnamese and would love the opportunity to one day serve the US in Vietnam.

5. Whats the youngest person you’ve ever encountered in the foreign service? Does work experience trump the test scores and interviews?

Sorry for that being so long. I’m just really excited at the prospect of one day working for the Foreign Service and got carried away. I hope to hear back from you and thank you once again for all you have sacrificed for our country.


66 Shawn January 29, 2014 at 11:46 am

Hey Larry,

Sorry. I just saw your comment. There is a Foreign Service specialist position in health care. I believe it is open to RNs, PA, and MDs, but I’m not positive. If you head over to you should be able to find out more. The specialist positions have a different hiring mechanism than the generalists.

67 Shawn January 29, 2014 at 11:50 am

Hey Tony,

Some of your answers may be found over on my site. In general though, I’d say the specialists and generalists are two fairly different things. They’re hired differently to start with. The specialist process is a bit more like a traditional job search. You look at the position and apply. The generalist route involves the written and oral assessments (the specialists may have some testing as well, I’m not quite sure.) Both can be great careers. They’re just different.

Education and experience affect your starting salary (again, I’m speaking for a generalist), but you still have to pass the tests to get in. It doesn’t matter if you’re a PhD with 20 years experience, you still need to pass the test to get in. Language ability can help with this, particularly a tough language like Vietnamese.

I think 22 is the youngest I know of. I believe you have to be 20 to take the test.

68 Seb February 10, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Hey Shawn, fellow FSO here. Nice interview!

Replying to Tony’s questions about age and experience, I believe that the most important thing you can do for you candidacy (especially in the oral assessment) is to take whatever experience you have brought with you (how much or little that may be) and to market yourself as someone who brings something different to the table. If you don’t have a lot of work or education experience, stress things like your adaptability and flexibility to new situations. You can’t coast your way through the application and assessment process with less experience (not that it’s easy either way, but older and more experienced candidates will have more to draw from along the way) but it is very possible to become an FSO despite a *perceived* lack of qualifications. That, to me, is the most important part of the process. The assessors seek potential as much as they evaluate qualifications.

As an example, I took the written assessment when I was 20, passed the oral assessment when I was 21, and was fortunate enough to be able to defer a formal offer until I graduated from college a year later. My professional experience amounted to basically zero aside from a political campaign internship during the summer after my sophomore year. But I took whatever I could (interning, study abroad, etc.) and painted myself as someone who had potential. It worked. I studied my ass off for the oral assessment, but I’ll be the first to say that I was also lucky as the odds are long either way. It definitely helped that I applied in 2008-2010, at the height of the Department’s hiring surge.

Best of luck!

69 Stacy February 12, 2014 at 10:30 am

Hi Shawn. Great article! My husband was just researching what it would be like to be an FSO and ran across this story. He said to me, “this guy went to Manchester, and was born in 1977.” Same college, same age, same major. I said, “there’s no way I don’t know him,” so had to check it out myself, and here you are. Sounds like an exciting and rewarding life. I’m encouraging my husband to look more into it.
Nice to see a fellow Spartan doing great things for our country. Thank you for your service.
Stacy (Cain) Poca
Manchester Communications Studies, ’99

70 joestillman2@gmailcom February 16, 2014 at 9:16 pm

FSO’s are legall speaking the only “true” diplomats in the legal sense of the term. FSS are staff but not entitled to immunity. At the bottom of the totem pole are civil servants, who provide support for those of us in the field. There was an effort to let them work at Embassy on excursion tours a few years ago but it turned out to be a disaster as they knew nothing about international affairs and could not speak foreign languages. So the only way to become a diplomat is to take a shot at the FS Exam.

71 Jake February 18, 2014 at 1:33 am

I just have a question with the time limit, if any, that applies for the whole process. If I pass the exam, a.) is there a requirement that I purse the other portions within a set time limit after passing? b.) if that is allowed, does it look unfavorably at all compared to someone who completed everything much quicker?

I can see myself taking the test right now, but I wouldn’t want it to disqualify myself and/or look bad if I decided to pursue the remainder of the career path, say, six years from now (I’m only 20 for the record).

72 Steven February 18, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Hey Shawn,
I know that this post is older, but I was wondering, does the Dept. of State consider human resources as relevant experience for a new FSO? I am a human resources generalist.

73 Shawn February 18, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Stacy — great to hear from you! I hope all is well with you and best of luck to your husband.

Jake — Once you start the process, you need to continue it or drop out altogether. After you pass the written, you’d be expected to go on to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel, and then the oral assessment. You can’t drag it out over years.

Steven — HR experience can certainly be useful experience, particularly for management track candidates. If you didn’t know, there are also HR Foreign Service Specialists. You may want to look into that as well. They serve overseas just like generalists.

74 Linda February 25, 2014 at 8:03 pm

Thanks for explaining all this so well. I have a son-in-law who is reporting to DC in March to begin this career. I always thought he was smart but now I know for sure.

75 Chris February 27, 2014 at 12:51 am

How much of a boost do you get from being proficient in a critical needs foreign language? I’ve spent some time in China and have gained fluency in Mandarin. Is this something that affects the test at all?

Assuming one passes the test, how much weight do they place on prior work experience in the decision making process? Would already having experience living and working overseas have an impact? What career track would be appropriate for someone with a background in International Politics, and has mostly been teaching ESL?

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